Psychological Support for Workers in Arctic Conditions webinar has held a webinar on psychological aspects of working conditions in the Extreme North. Northern (Arctic) Federal University professor Natalia Simonova, DSc (Psychology), and Yana Korneyeva, PhD (Psychology), head of the psychology department at the University’s Higher School of Psychology, Pedagogy and Physical Education, discuss research projects that are going on for over 20 years.

After the presentation, Natalia Simonova and Yana Korneyeva took questions from the audience

Thank you very much! This is a wonderful and magnificent presentation, the report is excellent, and, to be quite honest with you, it does not matter that we have had to stay on here a bit longer, plus the fact that you have talked more than our usual speakers. I wanted to point out that I was really mesmerized, in the process of watching your presentation and listening to your report. That's why I am so sorry that it has all come to an end. I would be really happy to listen to it more.

Natalia Simonova: We tried not to let it stretch out too much.

But this is so very true, there are very many snags and various nuances. In reality, this is very interesting though. And you know, while listening to you, I remember hearing you say that you were working in unison with physiologists, and I realized that this was really so. As people so often will tell you, all problems are caused by nerves. In other words, the psychological component is a very important thing here, especially during work in the North and the Arctic. I also have a job in the North, but I do not work in shifts; so, I would like to ask you about polar stress syndrome. We have several questions, and we'll try and discuss all of them but it's polar stress syndrome that I'm really interested to know more about. To my mind, there are several groups of people working in the North, including those who were born there and who live there, as well as those who were born elsewhere, rather than in the North and the Extreme North, but who relocated here at a certain age and who started living here. Add to this workers shuttling back and forth and doing work in shifts here. As professionals, could you tell us who adapts best to the harsh conditions, mentioned by you?

Natalia Simonova: Just like so many other things, this aspect has very many snags. The bodies of indigenous residents are better adapted because they boast unique thoraxes, and they are also left-handed. One study shows that newcomers also give birth to numerous left-handed babies from generation to generation. This means that newcomers are right-handed persons upon arrival, but the share of left-handed persons increases from generation to generation. Besides, they have unique noses; experts even discern between northern and southern noses. Ear, throat and nose specialists are telling us that these noses have different nasal-bridges. The way they breathe is also different because of high water consumption in the Extreme North. They are adapted to all this. Another thing we should add here is the fact that they eat food which is endemic to the Extreme North. The local diet is something completely different consisting of mostly raw meat and fish, as well as some moss and other plants during the summer months. Therefore what they are consuming is animal proteins with fats lacking carbohydrates. So if we put all this together it's no wonder that these people's metabolism is rather unusual. This is how the human body adapts. Newcomers become used to this little by little. But when people simply come to work in the Extreme North, they have little time to adapt to the local climate, and they have to work at the same time. Therefore for most people this is a situation that is far from easy. That's to put it in a nut shell but I think I covered everything you wanted to know.

Yes, and thank you so very much. Your answer to my question was brilliant. I guess the sooner I get to work on that left hand of mine the better. 

Natalia Simonova:  Have a go at drawing. Use your left hand and engage in any creative work. There are very many recommendations: brush your teeth and shave with your left hand. In principle, this expands the adaptive potential such a great deal.

This is good for everyone. Thank you very much. As far as I understand, you mostly conduct your field research in shift workers settlements. I have a question, and please can you answer it as an expert? Today, they are discussing working in shifts in these settlements and in old industrial regions, including Murmansk and the Murmansk Region. People arriving there settle in full-fledged cities with full-fledged societies where people are working in shifts. This sufficiently serious subject has a lot of snags because a certain cultural socialization period must pass. Serious conflicts might flare up between groups because, as a rule, shift workers don't create any social environment around themselves because they have a home where they can return back to. Did you try to find out whether this factor, namely, working in more socialized settlements, exerted an additional psychological pressure on such workers?

Natalia Simonova: Are you talking about places with a permanent population?


Natalia Simonova: To be quite honest with you, there was no such research. It would be useful to study this interesting subject though and to assess the possible risks. We can simply create a model dealing with the so-called internality, as well as various forms of control and self-control. Part-time workers are one thing, and people living here, improving their lifestyle and perceiving this place as their anchor base are something different. In other words, the basis and the superstructure run counter to each other. In my opinion, this will depend on personalities to an even greater extent, provided that people are used to enjoy normal living conditions. You cannot imagine what I saw in settlements for shift workers 25-30 years ago when their everyday living standards left a lot to be desired. At the same time, the workers installed showers inside girders. They brought barrels, placed them above girders and some other equipment in conditions of permafrost and used it during their two-week shifts. Some people brought tiny refrigerators and frying pans with them and started cooking some of their favorite dishes. These people were trying to make their shifts as comfortable as possible, so that the surroundings would resemble their homes. But I think that some people perceive their homes as hotels, and their personal traits are more important than the environment.

Thank you very much, this is really interesting. When you discussed psychological support for families of shift workers, I had the impression that you called for resolving the conflict concerning the towel, for example. You mostly act as a psychological mediator, rather than a scientist.

Natalia Simonova: Yes, you are quite right, this is psychological mediation. This is a psychological technique. We are saying all the time that it is very important to hire a psychologist who can work with the families of corporate, if not shift, workers. Of course, we meet them halfway, but we are hard pressed for money, and there are no resources for setting up family clubs or cafés for trailing spouses of shift workers where it would be possible to explain various matters to them. These other halves believe that all the real work like bringing up children has been dumped on them. They are absolutely sure that their men folk have time to put their feet up during shifts, and when they return back home they should pull their weight with the jobs in the home. This paints an entirely different picture. If we could change this attitude and explain to family members back home about what the jobs involve that their men do, this would no doubt get rid of a multitude of conflict situations.

Our webinar is coming to an end, but I would like to ask one more question. I believe this question is very important, especially for those who will watch our video later on. Today, they are discussing shift work very actively, and an awful lot of people believe that it is possible to quickly and easily earn a lot of money during such shifts. When you discussed internality and the subject's position, whom would you advise to work in shifts? What psychological types of people can survive such jobs? You have already talked about this, but would it be possible for you to put it in a nutshell?

Natalia Simonova: I can sum this up in the following way: a person who is used to controlling his or her relatives very closely should not go to the Arctic because he or she will not receive any information and therefore will be nervous and feel upset. It goes without saying that the North is not suited for people with weak nervous systems, so-called asthenic persons. But the same goes for extremely non-asthenic people; I am talking about macho men who are tough as thunder, who are physically strong, but who are not very powerful; by the way, Brodsky referred to them as metal. The Arctic accepts people who are physically strong but not very powerful. And, of course, psychological flexibility always helps. We have developed a rather sophisticated system. I find it hard to answer your question because outdoorsmen working for 12 hours and operators sitting inside offices and watching monitor screens for the same 12 hours all are shift workers. These two categories of workers require absolutely different psychological types. To be honest, anyone can work in shifts in the Extreme North. It is important to choose an optimal job and to work out a correct attitude toward oneself, toward work and other people. If these factors combine, people will be happy to work there, and there will no negative consequences.